Like most of us, Steven Rattner knew little about the automobile industry when in early 2009 he accepted the unenviable task of helping craft a government rescue plan for Detroit’s automakers.
But unlike most of us, Mr. Rattner knew more than a little about finance and profitable companies. And as President Obama’s former “car czar,” he has produced a readable book about the experience in Overhaul: An Insider’s Account of the Obama Administration’s Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry.
It’s easy to forget how dramatic was the auto industry’s fall from grace: In the 1950s and 1960s, the Big Three sold 90 per cent of America’s cars. But by 2008, General Motors, once America’s largest company, marked its 100th anniversary with no guarantee there would be a 101st.
We now know how it all came out, with a government-restructured General Motors — then dubbed “Government Motors” — and Chrysler now in recovery, after an infusion of $82 billion. And while the author was only one of the players, he was a key figure nonetheless.
Mr. Rattner, a longtime seasonal resident of West Tisbury, brought some significant strengths to the task, despite his steep learning curve about the industry. He had been successful at virtually every professional pursuit he has undertaken, on and off Wall Street. He has been a prominent Democratic fundraiser and friend and adviser to the powerful.
But, he writes, he longed for a stint in government.
Overhaul captures pivotal moments with government, industry and labor leaders in the middle of this pressure cooker. This was, after all, the largest industrial bailout since World War II, and the failure of the companies would ripple far beyond their factories and showrooms.
Mr. Rattner tells the story through his own personal journey working for the president, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers, then Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser. And his stint as a journalist — he had worked for several years as a New York Times reporter — serves him well, as he structures a narrative loaded with detail.
For example, he had no proper swearing in to this important job, no ceremonial pomp with the president or even Mr. Geithner in attendance. Rather, he was told to report to a far corner of the Treasury Department. There he was met “in room 2428 [by] two nice ladies from HR, who asked me to face the flag in the corner, raise my right hand, and repeat after them,” he writes. “Nothing is ever quite what you expect.”
His and his Team Auto’s encounters with figures like Rick Wagoner, GM’s chief executive officer who was fired from his job by the government; United Auto Workers leader Ron Gettelfinger; Mr. Summers; Mr. Geithner, and others help propel this book.
But he also raises important questions about America’s postindustrial economy and its recovery in the face of a dysfunctional Congress — sound familiar? — globalization, dated notions about labor and hidebound, often incompetent corporate governance.
The book closes with an anecdote in which his friend and investment client New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg invites him to the Vineyard Golf Club in August 2010. There he encounters Mr. Bloomberg’s golf partner, an effusive, grateful President Obama. “I had helped a man whom I greatly admire achieve an important success of his young administration,” Mr. Rattner writes.
But events in the months to follow provide a troubling coda to Mr. Rattner’s own story. Around the time his book was published last year, he was accused in civil cases filed by the SEC and later the New York state attorney general’s office of a “pay-to-play” scheme in 2004 and 2005 to get business from New York’s state pension fund for his former company, Quadrangle Group.
He devotes a half-dozen paragraphs in the book to these dark clouds on the horizon. “During my many years in business, I had certainly been criticized, but I had never before had my integrity questioned,” he wrote.
Mr. Rattner has consistently denied any wrongdoing and was never charged criminally. But he did end up settling the state and federal civil cases by, among other things, paying $16 million.
One wonders whether that chapter in his life might be grist for another book.